Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Porgy Perplex

Last weekend I attended a pre-opening performance of the Gershwins' Porgy and Bess at the Ahmanson Theater in downtown Los Angeles. Though I had sung tunes from the show to my eleven-year-old when he was little, I had never seen a live production of it. And so, when it moved here from Broadway, I took him to see the source of the singing which I had once inflicted upon him.

It was a very good production. The voices were uniformly wonderful. Bess was the highlight of it, her voice full, moving and operatic in quality; Porgy's was rather less so, but it, too, was clear and emotive. Also, the women who sang Serena and Clara were exceptional. The dance numbers suffered from the fact that the Ahmanson stage was too small to allow them to breathe properly. However, they were done in a spirited fashion. The acting was of a high quality across the board, and the orchestra, while understaffed in my opinion, did well.

I had read that the show has been controversial from its inception, having been denounced even by black singers and actors, some of whom refused to participate in it. However, it received a new life, and a new respect, when it was revived in the Seventies, and it is now considered an established part of American musical literature.

I must say that there were moments even in this new-millennial production when I understood the original dissension. Especially in the dance numbers, one could see vestiges of stereotyping that must have been more pronounced in earlier stagings. One of the dances in particular - a funeral dance - was reminiscent of arm-waving, hip-strutting voodoo dance, which I found discomforting. I cannot imagine why the performers agreed to do the number this way; why they did not insist on something less cliched and more creative.

Beyond this, the cast did a very good job of keeping the tone dignified despite the archaic language, and concentrating on the emotional power of the story and the music, while deflecting attention away from the 1930s racial ethos which lurks behind the text. Still, there were moments, as in 'It Ain't Necessarily So,' when I felt that more energy and mischievousness were called for, and I found the villain, for all his physical bulk and booming baritone, to be a bit over the top. Nonetheless, when he was killed, the audience actually cheered - the highest accolade for any stage villain.

Having seen it live on stage in a first-rate production, I find I have mixed feelings about Porgy and Bess. George Gershwin's music is of a very high order for what one could call a popular opera or an operatic musical. It combines European opera with folk tunes, jazz and gospel music in a way that is creative without being condescending. In the blending of traditional and contemporary styles, I was reminded often of Kurt Weill's Three Penny Opera. Porgy, I think, falls into that narrow niche between popular and classical, rather like Bernstein's West Side Story, for example, or his Candide. It is not Oklahoma, but neither is it Don Giovanni.

However, there can be no doubt that Porgy has benefited from the perspective of time: We now see it after eighty years as much a historical artifact as a brilliant work of musical theater. There is no question in my mind that if such a piece were written today it could not find a producer, and, even if it somehow did, it would be howled off the stage by the forces of political correctness long before history had a chance to decide on its social and artistic merits. In short, for all its virtues, Porgy would not be possible today.